How to Avoid Common Grant Proposal Mistakes

From Specifics to Clarity

There's nothing quite like advice from an insider. That's why grant writers never give away their copies of Marvin Teitel's book, Winning Foundation Grants: A Foundation CEO Reveals The Secrets You Need to Know (Buy from Amazon). Teitel's book, written in 2012, has become a classic. 

Teitel provides a view from the other side of the desk. As the CEO of a foundation, he saw thousands of proposals over the years. Through that flurry of paper, Teitel identified five common mistakes that proposal writers make. So before you send off or submit your proposal, check it once more in light of this list of common mistakes.

Talking more about problems than solutions.

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Don't confuse your grant proposal with your communications with donors or the general public. A proposal is not an educational pamphlet, newsletter, or annual report.

Your proposal must show that you are familiar with the issue you're dealing with, but must, first and foremost, focus on what you are going to do about the problem or need

Remember that a grant proposal is a plan of action, so make it as specific as possible. Explain the problem but then move on to what you'll be doing about it. 

Addressing specific problems with general solutions.

Man explaining a chart.
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A successful proposal paints a clear picture of what your organization will do to address the issue at hand. Don't just wax eloquent about the problem or preach about it. Provide specific details about the actions you will take to resolve it.

Teitel suggests that the lack of concrete measures might be because the writer is insufficiently aware of what's being done by her organization.

Grant writers are often writers first, not program experts. But grant writing must be done in collaboration with those people who will carry out the project.

Similarly, a lack of specificity could mean that the group needs to go back to its strategic planning before it tries to raise funds.

Involve your program team with the grant writing process. Help them zero in on the specifics, the statistics, and on any research they have conducted about possible solutions. Let them know just how critical specific details are to the success of the proposal

Using buzzwords and jargon.

Comic book type word HUH?
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Teitel says, "Some proposal writers confuse density with erudition." What one needs is simple prose that "tells a story or paints a picture."

Avoid vague claims, trendy language, and obscure terms - they won't impress the funder and may cause her to dislike your proposal.

A grant proposal writer must serve as a translator. Does your program team speak with acronyms and jargon? Take the time to unravel what they say and translate it into language anyone can understand. Don't be afraid to say, "I don't understand. Could you say that in plain English?"

Tip: Become aware of turgid prose too. Use a readily available app such as Grammarly or Hemingway to help avoid wordiness, passive sentence structure, and too complex sentences while writing your proposal.

Budgets that don't make sense.

Woman at desk working on a budget.
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Teitel says that, surprisingly, some proposals arrive with math errors that undermine the organization's credibility. He points out that, "...the budget should not only add up, it also has to support the logic of the proposal's narrative."

Have you involved your business manager while writing the grant? Do the numbers make sense?  How can the budget explanation be improved? Double check the math. 

Repeating exact phrases from the funder's guidelines.

Cutting and pasting tools
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Just pasting phrases from the funder's guidelines into your proposal will not result in funding.

All good proposals should fit the foundation's guidelines, but telling how and why they fit is what is important. Cutting and pasting just says that you've read the funder's website.

Avoid a cookie-cutter approach to your proposal. Think about how you can match the funder's needs in a creative way and still stay within the guidelines. It's a thin line to walk, but do it well, and your proposal will stand out from the competition.

Also, don't cut and paste from prior proposals. Make each proposal original and unique to each funder. Cutting and pasting between proposals also runs the risk of making a mistake that a funder will notice. Even "boilerplate" descriptions that you use over and over can become stale, stilted, and too formal. Force yourself to rewrite these sections for every proposal.

It is hard enough to write a good proposal. Don't undercut yourself by making these mistakes, that, with some care, can easily be avoided.